Primitivism Revisited: Basquiat between Blackness, Otherness, and the Old-New
Primitivism in modern art is most commonly related with the depiction of non-Western motives and images, which are taken from different cultures and which show the fascination of the modern world with the cultural past of distant civilisations (Rhodes, 1994; Goldwater, 1986). Starting as a movement in the early 20th century, primitivism reflects a creative and powerful dichotomy between modernity and the past, and the rebellion against the established, mainstream order of depiction. In painting, primitivism is often associated with artists such as Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Henri Rousseau (Rhodes, 1994; Goldwater, 1986). In their work the incorporation of non-Western tribal elements were combined with a non-linear way for perception of reality. Primitivism also reflected the desire of contemporary artists to return to the basics of human civilisation, and to re-live through their work the existence of ancient cultures (Rhodes, 1994; Goldwater, 1986).
From a less philosophical perspective, primitivism is a trend which largely defies the traditional linear depiction and yet possesses extremely recognizable simplicity. This application of totally new ways of seeing and depicting the world marked several lines of opposition – the old versus the new, the linear versus the non-linear, the Western versus the non-Western. The very dichotomy which primitivism in modern art represents is a radically different visualisation, which will appear in the works of other artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Gaston Chaissac, Jean Dubuffet, and Joaquin Torres-Garcia (Johnson, 2003). Their stark depictions reveal in an intricate and enticing manner the clash between the Western and the non-Western, between the old and the new, and would often present the objects and the people trapped inside these confinements. The purpose of this essay is to examine certain critical views on primitivism in art through the prism of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work, in comparison with other artists considered primitive such as Picasso and Gauguin. For clarity, the rest of the paper is divided into several sections. The next section will provide a brief overview of Basquiat’s art and its significance. It will be followed by an analysis of two of the basic views of primitivism – the depiction of the non-Western, and the juxtaposition between the old and the new – both observed in the context of Basquiat’s work.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: the Artist
Born in New York and of American-Haitian-Puerto Rican origin in 1960, Basquiat’s sensational rise to fame in the 1980s was largely influenced by his unique pictorial style, combining a variety of techniques (Fretz, 2010). It was also influenced by his powerful social commentary which captured the essence of modern, as well as past hostilities such as the marginalisation of certain groups of society, and the role of the state and its institutions. Basquiat largely focused on the centrality of the human figure and individualism in these contexts (Fretz, 2010; Mayer, 2005). His depiction of the illnesses and the glory of the contemporary civilisation through the prism of black culture have made him one of the most celebrated modern painters of all times. What Marc Mayer calls “calculated incoherence” (Mayer, 2010: 50) reveals also one of the most distinguishable features of Basquiat’s work – keeping his audience in a state of “half-knowing”, of “mystery within familiarity” (Mayer, 2005:50). Some of his most notable works such as Flexible (1894), The Irony of the Negro Policeman (1981), Untitled (History of the Black people) (1983) and Untitled (Skull) (1984) have triggered an ardent debate on his rendition as a primitivist and neo-Expressionist painter. The following sections will explore the duality of Basquiat’s primitivism through his depiction of black culture as ‘black’ (from the perspective of race), and at the same time as ‘other’, (as a socio-historical entity). They will also look at his work as juxtaposition between the old and the new, and as a defiance of the traditional pictorial tradition.
Basquiat, primitivism, and the Black heritage
As mentioned earlier one of the signposts of primitivism is related to the depiction of non-Western cultures and ancient civilisations (Atkins, 1993; Rhodes, 1994; Goldwater, 1986). This view of primitivism as an expression of a certain type of historicity, bound by culture, tradition, and distinct heritage, is one of the underlying motifs in Basquiat’s work. His depiction of the Black civilization at various stages of its development does not fail to capture its complexity and variety. Paintings such as Untitled (History of the Black people) (1983) reveal the cultural richness of the African heritage, where Egyptians are depicted as Africans and thus their origin in terms of ethnicity is reaffirmed in the artist’s work (Frohne,1999). The painting also makes allusions to the slave trade in the United States, and the exploitation of labour in the American plantations.
Another work which makes powerful allusions to blackness in a more sociological, rather than historical context is Irony of the Negro Policeman (1981). Here the whole concept is an oxymoron, as in Basquiat’s view the police represents oppression and the oppressive state, rather than the guardian of the order, and the Negro should be sympathetic to members of his race, rather than prosecuting and arresting them (Frohne, 1999). This re-ordering of the socio-political hierarchy which in Basquiat’s view has defined modernity for centuries reflects also a brave interpretation of “blackness” and “whiteness” not only as racial, but also as sociological and even moral categories. In this sense Basquiat’s primitivism is shown to reveal the deepest controversies in black history. It also reveals the black race’s “internalisation” of certain characteristics, historically attributed to the white race, such as oppression, restriction and control. In these two paintings Basquiat is making clear allusions to members of his own race, and referring to important social and historical developments which have defined its very existence. In the first one he is celebrating the glorious past of the Egyptian nation as belonging to the African continent, but in the second one he fiercely criticises the sociological transformations of his own race, manifested in the collective image of the oppressed-turn-oppressor Negro policeman. Here Basquiat’s message can be related to Said’s concept of Orientalism and “otherness” (1979) where certain groups are viewed as ethnically, geographically or culturally “other” and are thus marginalised and excluded. Basquiat’s visualisation of the otherness to a large extent replicates that of Said, because it reflects the historical opposition between certain groups, and the complex transformations resulting from this opposition.
To draw a comparison on this particular critical view of primitivism, it would be interesting to explore how blackness and the non-Western are captured in the works of other artists, often rendered as primitivist. In Picasso’s African period and probably most notable work of this time Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) the African elements are dominant. Inspired by traditional African masks, the work has been renowned for its sharp, simple, geometrical shapes, which defy the traditional linear dimension popular throughout Europe at that time (Berger, 1989). Revolutionary both in pictorial style and messages, the painting is considered to have been a prelude to the birth of Cubism (Berger, 1989). Here Blackness is not the central theme of the work. While with Basquiat and the two works discussed previously the central focus is the black race and its historical and social transformations, in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon the influence of the African tradition is most clearly seen through the geometric shapes and the angry, almost clumsy depiction of the figures. In this sense while Basquiat’s primitivism poses powerful political and social messages, which reveal perpetuating conflicts, Picasso’s African elements in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon are used as a technique which carries the over-burdened dichotomy between the female body and the ruthless masculinity of a predominantly male world.
To draw another parallel, in Gauguin’s works, primitivism takes on a slightly different direction. In The Moon and the Earth (1893) and Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch (1892) Gauguin celebrates Tahitian culture and its deep and versatile heritage (Solomon-Godeau, 1986). These two paintings however are also depiction of a highly powerful sexualisation of femininity, and reveal Gauguin’s views of Tahiti as an embodiment of sexual freedom and liberty (Solomon-Godeau, 1986). Although the artist has been criticised for his strictly male and thus exploitative views of female sexuality and freedom (Solomon-Godeau, 1986), the paintings discussed here reveal his idealistic views of the rural, as opposed to the industrial, and the free, as opposed to the restrained. These are all captured in his intense expressions of primitivism within the confines of a particular culture – that of Tahiti.
In this sense to draw a parallel between Basquiat, Picasso and Gauguin’s primitivism is a challenging task. While Basquiat emphasizes certain racial confines and his paintings are bound by historicity, Picasso’s primitivism is far more technical and abrupt. Gauguin on the other hand reveals primitivism in the confines of a particular culture, which is different from the Western one, and thus non-Western, or “other”. However, while this “otherness” in Gauguin’s work is depicted as non-dichotomous and even peaceful, this section has revealed that exactly the opposite is true for some of Basquiat’s works.
Basquiat, primitivism, and the old-new paradigm
While we previously looked at Basquiat’s work as an expression of black culture and its transformations, this section will discuss his primitivism from a non-ethnic, non-racial perspective. It will look at primitivism as juxtaposition between the old and the new, and defiance of the conventional Euclidan pictorial style (Henderson, 2013; Atkins, 1993; Rhodes, 1994; Goldwater, 1986).
To consider Basquiat’s primitivism simply as “racial” or “historical” is an oversimplification. In the words of Armand, Basquiat’s work has been problematically taken to be “the virtuosity of an African-American New York artist, whose urban multi-ethnicity is the mark of a chick ‘80s neo-primitivism” (Armand, 2000, n.p). The key word here is “multi-ethnic”. As much as the non-Western (in Basquiat’s sense – black) element is crucial in primitivism, we need to consider another critical perspective of this trend – the juxtaposition between past and modernity. In Basquiat’s work this juxtaposition transcends the confines of history and race. His primitivism is also expressed through his combination of contemporary elements and traditional ones inspired by classic art, poetry and literature. In this sense Basquiat is not simply a black artist. For example his painting Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits (1982) is a visual celebration of da Vinci’s fascination of the human body, whose anatomy was one of the centre themes for Basquiat himself. The painting can be easily interpreted as juxtaposition between the old and the new – one of the main tenets of primitivism as already mentioned earlier. It combines a contemporary pictorial technique, with motifs from da Vinci’s own work and is an allusion to the Renaissance.
The work is an expression of primitivism in another way. It focuses on the importance of the individual and the human body as a manifestation of the new, and it defies the traditional, conventional dimensions of classical painting. The work is in many ways abstract, and influenced by the disjointed, vibrant, chaotic world of the modern, where the human figure is central. In this sense Basquiat’s work relates to primitivism, and reveals that his approach to implementing it is not entirely inspired by his ethnic origin or his incredibly powerful racial awareness. It is also bound by juxtapositions which go beyond these boundaries, and which reveal Basquiat not necessarily as a black artist but as an artist, whose perception of the complexities of the modern world is captured in the presumably less sophisticated and simple technique of primitivism.
To quickly draw a parallel, Gauguin’s work which has already been mentioned in the previous section, will serve as an example here as well. His depiction of the people of Tahiti is not necessarily to be perceived only as bound by their cultural or ethnic predispositions, but also by their authenticity, understood by the painter as an antonym to the modern civilisation (Herbert, 1997). In Gauguin’s work, themes such as the peacefulness of the rural landscape, as opposed to the hectic reality of the modern world are prevalent. For example we can see how in Matamoe (Landscape with Peacocks) (1892) the naturalistic depiction reveals not only the artist’s attempt to return to the basics, but also to escape from the urban culture, and also from art which is unoriginal. It is an appeal towards a form of communication, which is “untouched by culture” (Radford University, 2013, n.p). In this sense both Gauguin and Basquiat reveal another important critical tenet of primitivism, namely the opposition between the old and the new, where the “primitive” vision began to signify the “true” vision, with true vision being the vision of the modern artist (Radford University, 2013, n.p). Primitivism here is revealed to be not only an amalgamation between the old and the new, but also a visualisation of a world, where the search for authenticity and meaning is key. While for Gauguin this search is manifested through his glorification of the non-urban, for Basquiat this quest for a different type of normality is depicted in his appraisal of the modern.
This essay has attempted to discuss some of the critical views of primitivism, in relation to the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat. It has shown that primitivism in Basquiat’s art has a certain type of duality. On one hand, the role of “blackness” and “otherness” as an expression of racial awareness and socio-economic, even historical oppositions is crucial. On the other hand, we have observed how this is transformed into another tenet of primitivism, which transcends the confines of the racial debate and takes us to another one – the debate between the old and the new. Basquiat’s modern man is central to his paintings, despite some of his early social commentaries against consumerism and the modern society. In this sense Basquiat’s work goes beyond the framework of art, because of its strong moral and sociological impetus. His paintings mark some of the most poignant and at the same time the most exuberant passages of human history, and serve as a fascinating reminder not only of the durability of his own work, but also of the perpetuation of the themes which his art so strongly captures.
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The Irony of the Negro Policeman (1981)
Untitled (History of the Black people) (1983)
Untitled (Skull) (1984)
Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits (1982)
The Moon and the Earth (1893)
Matamoe (Landscape with Peacocks) (1892)
Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch (1892)
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)
Director: Julian Schnabel
Country: United States